Deer in prehistory

We decided to make some antler head-dresses like those based on the ones found at the site of Star Carr, an early Mesolithic site.

We explore a general background to these in an earlier post about Mesolithic shamanism. In this post, we will explore in more detail these head dresses, fashioned from the skulls and attached (unshed) antler of large male deer, were used for.

The role of these enigmatic objects has been the subject of speculation ever since they were first found.

British Museum held head dresses (BM image copyright)

The head dresses are not complete with fractured ends to the antler, Clark suggested that some were deliberately broken in antiquity, possibly to re-use the antler to make barbed points. Star Carr is extremely unusual in its high concentration of barbed points compared to other sites, and if we consider that these are hunting implements, the presence of worn points suggests they were used prior to being returned to the sites and deposited. .

As the original excavator noted there are a number of characteristics that point to the shaped skulls being worn rather than merely being mounted on posts etc.

The surviving head dresses have the following features in common

  1. ¾ of the circumference of the main beam (antler shaft) has been cut away leaving only the outer wall of the antler
  2. The upper half of brow (first branch) times removed
  3. The inner aspect of burr (second branch) removed
  4. The outer aspect of burr (base of antler) intact
  5. All the preserved parietal (back of the skull) bones perforated
  6. The inside surface of the skull has been smoothed by removing bone

The shaped skull (image copyright British Museum)

The reduction of the tines and the alteration to the  inner skull surface are suggestive of these artefacts being used as head dresses.  If used for hunting would they be effective and what was the purpose of the holes in the back of the skull?  Whilst mostly there are two holes, that look like eyes, some skulls have three holes…….

The experimental head dress and barbed points

Our reproductions so far have been made from younger, smaller stags whilst our experimental strategy is being worked out.   Ian used identical tools to those available in the Mesolithic and reduced the antlers by taking off the majority of the beam and tines, he smoothed the inside of the skull and also created holes in the back of the skull. He managed to create barbed points from the antler waste removed to make the head dresses.

Our smaller head dresses with two larger stag skulls

We have tried our skulls on many people’s heads over the summer at festivals, and whilst they are relatively easily held on the top of the head facing forwards with cords threaded around the antlers and through the natural holes (foramina), it is much harder to wear them reversed looking through the artificial ‘eye holes’.

Eyeholes?

We have noted no evidence for wear around the antler bases or through the these ‘eye holes’ on the three head dresses we have examined so far, however the skulls surrounding the foramina of at least one of the skulls is broken and shows some sort of wear/alternation suggesting that these probably were part of some fixing technique.  These smaller skulls remain uncomfortable to balance on the head, so if worn as head dresses some sort of padding would have been useful.

Some ethnographic accounts describe luring stags in using antler head dresses and calls, and based on our experience using the head dresses in this manner could have been very effective. The experiment also proved that lashed on with only a small amount of  plant cord the head dresses could be attached to a hunter and used to actively stalk deer.

The use of these head dresses to lure in, or to hunt deer does not however preclude their role in other, possibly shamanic activities as we have discussed elsewhere. We discuss an experiment which we took out in to the real world and tried the head-dresses on around real deer with a project we took part in with Time Team, which you can find in another post.

Jacqui Mulville